Innovating during the pandemic: Opening Kasama with passion and grit
We connected with Genie Kwon and Tim Flores, chef-owners of Kasama in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. Kasama offers Flores’ take on his family’s Filipino recipes and Kwon’s talent for French-American pastry.
The two have a deep-rooted passion for food and the restaurant industry and have been influential in the restaurant openings and menu development across the globe. With passion and grit, they opened Kasama—which means together in Tagalog—in August 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. They say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Q. Why did you open Kasama?
A. We started on our journey to open Kasama about two years ago. After working at fine dining restaurants Oriole, GT Fish & Oyster, Boca, and Eleven Madison Park, we wanted to open a neighborhood restaurant, a casual space, and put our own spin on food that made people happy every day.
We didn’t expect to be opening a new concept during a pandemic, but it was never an option for us not to open the restaurant. This is the only thing that we planned on doing, no matter what. And, despite the lack of sleep, the pressures of owning a restaurant, and constant pivoting, we are happy.
Q. What was different about opening a restaurant during the pandemic?
A. We’ve both opened restaurants before, but nothing could have prepared us for what we and the industry encountered because of COVID-19—the shutdowns, the dining and capacity restrictions.
We faced challenges in sourcing specialty Filipino ingredients, and even basic necessities. We had difficulty sourcing material for the restaurant build-out including tile; our plate supplier, David Kim of DTKceramics, actually shifted his business to make ceramic tile for us!
Instead of buying plates, we had to find good carryout packaging, and we adjusted the menu to be carryout and delivery friendly.
We didn’t build the full team we anticipated. We knew we wanted to keep everyone we hired employed and to do that we had to go with a very lean staff and find the most cost-effective solutions for everything.
Most of all we had to give up control and be happy with it.
In fine dining, you have very tight control from dealing with specialized vendors to the temperature of the food when it reaches the table.
Now, we have to give up control in so many ways; we adapt every single day and work to do it better the next day so that our we, our staff, and our customers are happy. The only reason we got to where we are now is because of our staff and the support of our community of customers.
Q. Tell us about the menu? Did the pandemic change your menu plans?
A. We wanted to build a menu that showcases our strengths; Tim’s elevated approach to his Filipino heritage and my skill for pastry.
Tim’s goal was to introduce the world to Filipino food and apply fine-dining technique’s to recipes he grew up eating with his family, without going too far and offending tradition.
Tim’s Mom gives the final “seal of approval” to anything that goes on the menu. I focused on French American pastries with some Filipino influence. In fine dining, I spent a lot of time manipulating ingredients to be something else. Now, I let the ingredients be themselves and shine.
Because of the pandemic we serve more casual items for delivery that we didn’t anticipate would be part of our menu. But we focus on the tiny factors that make the food great in order to create a unique experience. We adapt every day on a level that we never have before and we focus on what we can do better day after day.